Material Safety and your Laser
While nearly any material you put into your engraving system will contain and or release some sort of residue or debris, generally speaking, most materials are safe to use in your system. However, there are certain materials not suited for laser engraving and cutting - these materials can corrode the inside of your machine, which reduces performance and voids your warranty.
Hydrogen Chloride and Vinyl Chloride (mostly found in PVC and other man made materials) are hazardous to the life of your laser system. Engraving and cutting these materials can cause irreversible damage to your machine, so determining the components of your cutting and engraving materials is extremely important. But how do you determine what makes up the material you want to laser cut or engrave? Read on to find out.
Material Safety Data Sheet
A Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) is designed to provide you the proper procedures for handling or working with a particular substance. These documents contain the elements used to make up the material and will indicate whether or not it contains elements that are potentially harmful to your engraving system. MSDS's also include information such as physical data (melting point, boiling point, flash point etc.), toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment, and spill/leak procedures.
Obtaining a MSDS
There are several ways to obtain a MSDS for the material sheet. The easiest way is to perform an Internet search with the key words "MSDS" and whatever material you're working with (example: MSDS + Neoprene.)
If you can't find the information you're looking for using this method, contact the manufacturer directly to obtain a MSDS on the material in question.
Below are some sample safety data sheets for various products.
Neoprene - Notice that under hazardous combustion products, the MSDS indicates hydrogen chloride is emitted when the material is heated.
Polyester - there is no mention of toxic or questionable elements in this material so it appears safe to laser cut and/or engrave.
What happens if you engrave or cut something containing hydrogen or vinyl chloride?
If you don't know what's in the material you're engraving or cutting, you may have unintentionally cut or engraved items containing polyvinyl chloride. Performing this once or twice will likely not drastically damage your machine; however, continued engraving or cutting of this material will corrode the inside of your machine.
A more important consideration are the potentially hazardous fumes that might be released from processing these materials. Some materials are quite toxic when burned and the damage to your health is much more important than the minor damage you might do to your machine.
Material Safety Data Sheets are an invaluable resource for laser engravers. To protect your health and the life of your machine, always obtain a MSDS for materials about which you are uncertain.